LOS ANGELES — Jerral Hancock is about to replace the worst day of his life with the best one.
The Army veteran, who was partially paralyzed, badly burned and lost his left arm when the tank he was driving through Iraq on his 21st birthday was attacked, will get a spacious, new home built from the ground up by a group of Southern California high school students. The students took up Hancock's cause as part of an annual school project honoring veterans.
After two years of raising hundreds of thousands of dollars from selling T-shirts and refrigerator magnets, soliciting donations from businesses and receiving unsolicited help from people that included actor Gary Sinise and local prison inmates, they'll present the keys to Hancock on Friday, his 29th birthday.
"I'm grateful, I'm very, very grateful," the retired solider said by phone Thursday in a voice filled with emotion.
Hancock is well known in the Antelope Valley, the high-desert community 80 miles northeast of Los Angeles that comprises the cities of Lancaster and Palmdale and is home to one of the largest concentrations of military families in the country.
Although he's been feted frequently at parades and other events, few knew that the friendly but intensely private former soldier, whose wife left him after he was injured, lived in a cramped mobile home so small he couldn't get his wheelchair into the rooms of his 11-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter.
After Lancaster High School history teacher Jamie Goodreau invited him to speak to her classes in 2013 and he opened up a bit, her 11th- grade students decided what their year-end project honoring veterans would be: They'd build Hancock a new home.
Goodreau knew the task would be daunting, but she got behind it. So did pretty much the rest of Antelope Valley.
The real estate agent waived her commission, big-box stores supplied building materials, and the architectural firm provided blueprints. Prison's inmates held a fundraising art sale. When Sinise got wind of the effort, the "Forrest Gump" and "CSI: NY" star brought his Lt. Dan Band out for a benefit concert and got his charitable foundation involved.
Many of those folks planned to be on hand Friday, which had Hancock slightly unnerved.
Asked when he'd actually move in, he laughed and replied: "As soon as the cameras leave."